How should we respond to stories of student “spiking” around the country?

Students are boycotting nightclubs because they want more measures put in place to prevent spiking.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In the original version of this piece posted on Tuesday, 5,000 students had signed a petition demanding what would amount to the introduction of a quality framework for clubbing safety. Today we’re on 160,000.

Basically, sweeping the country over the past week has been a spate of stories concerning “spiking” in nightclubs.

Some have concerned allegations of incidents of drink spiking – generating some well-meaning but highly controversial interventions from university welfare teams that some have argued are “victim blaming” in their approach.

There’s also been a spate of pretty horrifying stories concerning so-called “needle spiking”, where the suggestion is that perpetrators have been injecting student clubbers with substances that would have a similar effect to drink spiking.

The ongoing question with all forms of sexual violence when it comes to students is understanding prevalence. In the Tab, in an Instagram survey taken by over 23,000 people, it asked: Since the start of this university year, do you believe you have been spiked? Of these, 2,625 people said they believed they had – over 11 per cent of respondents.

But depending on how it was promoted and worded, that survey might have the same self-selection bias that lots of other research in this space has. We really need proper, annual, funded prevalence research into sexual misconduct faced by students. Over ten years after Hidden Marks, the fact that this has never been carried out by UUK, HEFCE, OfS or government is mind-blowing.

I have been around the September drink spiking stories before – and it’s difficult to know what kind of reaction there should be as we both lack decent prevalence data and we may not be able to rely on stats from reports to the Police.

This does matter. I’m not suggesting some kind of hierarchy of evil, but if sexual assaults in halls are a much bigger problem than very rare spiking incidents, I know where I’d put my resource and policy focus. We also don’t want women to be in fear of going clubbing if the risk is smaller than the media suggests. The problem is that those are two big “if”s.

Back when I worked at an SU, at this time of year my interactions with the Police on this issue tended to involve assertions from them that spiking incidents were “likely” to be students away from home not able to handle drink (yet).

I never saw stats or research to back that up – and I’m not convinced it’s easy to trust the Police and assertions of that sort given where we are on the wider issues surrounding institutionalised misogyny and the Police.

Is this a moral panic? On Vice, Guy Jones, senior scientist at drugs charity the Loop, says:

Injecting adds a big ‘what?’ factor to the whole thing because few drugs would be able to be injected like this. Where drugs can be injected non-intravenously, there are specific injection sites that do not work well. The back is one of these unsuitable sites due to the low fat-muscle content, and high concentration of pain receptors.”

GHB would be a poor candidate for injection due to the large amount of fluid needed, and therefore the thick, painful needle. This means that the substance involved would be something that would be highly detectable for several days in a toxicology screening such as a benzodiazepine.”

David Caldicott, an emergency medicine consultant and founder of drug testing project WEDINOS, says:

There are a couple of things that are disconcerting about this story. The technical and medical knowledge required to perform this would make this deeply improbable. It is at the level of a state sponsored actor incapacitating a dissident, like the Novichok incident. The idea that a clubber would do this to a fellow clubber seems highly unlikely to me.

It’s really hard to stick a needle in someone without them noticing, especially if you have to keep the needle in there for long enough, maybe 20 seconds, to inject enough drugs to cause this. If you were malicious there would be half a dozen much easier other ways to spike someone.”

Caldicott adds that it’s important that when a someone believes something has happened that has deprived them of their cognitive liberty to take them seriously and investigate it to the hilt:

It’s entirely possible that this is some stupid fad of sticking needles into people, but the association between sticking needles into people and people being intoxicated and collapsing seems far-fetched at the moment, it’s very difficult to explain.”

Also in the Vice piece, a critical care nurse familiar with intramuscular injecting said that the likelihood of being able to administer a jab of ketamine, benzo or haloperidol (probably the only drugs likely candidates for this) is “virtually zero” because the needle size you need to quickly administer the liquid the drug is suspended in is a size that would hurt a lot when administered.

And Helena Conibear, CEO of the Alcohol Education Trust, said:

What we’ve found over 11 years of our existence is that there is a rise in reporting to us [about drink spiking] during freshers’ week in the autumn. Everyone presumes it takes place in bars and clubs, but half is at private parties and unregulated spaces because there’s less likelihood to have CCTV… Everyone presumes stranger danger but actually it could be a wider friendship group”.

Maybe these experts are right. But even if they are, the panic here perhaps speaks to wider fears surrounding sexual violence perpetrated on students that have long not been properly acted on.

In the end as well as a turn away from victim blaming and a focus on “domestic” settings, this is an issue where the quality and standard of what is done in venues really matters – in terms of culture setting, security, CCTV and so on. To be honest, if we are worried about the welfare of students in these settings, it needs universities, SUs, local authorities and the Police to focus in on venue safety as a licensing concern.

You might remember this piece we carried from Kent Union a while ago, where the SU:

Lobbied our local councils (Canterbury and Medway) to change their licensing policy so that every license holder would have a licensing obligation to actually tackle sexual harassment on their premises.

It’s what makes the 75,000 strong petition and the rise in “GNI” groups so interesting. In late August, a group of students at Edinburgh noticed a rise in spiking incidents in their networks in the city:

It got to the point where every time myself and my friends went on nights out we were paranoid and anxious the whole time and it didn’t seem like there was any end to this madness in sight,”

So a group called “Girls Night In” was born, aiming to share information about spiking and to tell people’s stories. The page now has over 3.5k followers. As happens with this sort of stuff, it went viral – and now chapters of GNI are springing up on campuses across the country and running “consumer activism” boycotts of local businesses.

They variously have demands of venues they’re trying to target – including things like better training and recruitment of security staff, increased body/bag searching, better CCTV at bars, and better care for those who think they’ve been spiked – and boycotts are emerging of venues refusing to accede to the demands.

It’s an interesting and perfectly reasonable set of asks (although “increased body/bag searching” has the potential to make things much worse for students of colour) and surely the sort of thing (along with interventions in the local housing market) that ought to be front and centre in Civic University Agreement work?

It also reminds us that when student “consumers” feel empowered to take away their money, change can come rapidly. It’s what’s so faulty about that “student as consumer” as a method of “improvement” within HE – once you’re in it’s impossible to leave or withhold your fees.

Final thought – if the needle spiking thing turns out to be rare or unfounded moral panic, remember that we still have predators, we still have terrible CCTV and security, and we still have sexual assault happening in nightclubs across the UK that students end up normalising. We still have a problem that needs tackling. We just need one of the national bodies to coordinate that national prevalence work to prove it.

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